What is the effect of stress on your brain? Research finds

Prolonged exposure to stress can cause damage to your brain and body. New research has found a link between stress and smaller brain volumes, poorer cognition, and worse memory, all of which have previously been associated with an increased risk of dementia.

Chronic stress can cause damage to a person’s health. It can have a negative effect on the cardiovascular system, digestion, breathing, the nervous system, and many other aspects of well-being.

The new research was published on October 24, 2018, in the journal Neurology. It shows that the brain may suffer when the cortisol rises too high in the body’s system. Cortisol is a primary stress hormone.

“Among young and middle-aged adults at an average age of 48 years, highest levels of cortisol in the top 30 percent were linked to smaller brain volumes. It causes changes in the brain white matter.  And responsible for poorer performance on memory and thinking tasks,” says Sudha Seshadri. She is an MD, study author, and director at the University of Texas Health Sciences Center in San Antonio.

She stresses that the study does not indicate that cortisol is responsible for these effects. But finds a strong relationship between the high hormone levels and damaging consequences in the brain.

Brain changes associated with higher risk of Dementia

“These were not big changes which anyone would notice. But we know such differences are linked to a greater risk of dementia,” she says. “The consequences were distressing, however, because all the changes were only seen when these people were in their forties.”

Victor Fornari, MD, who was a psychiatrist, was not involved in the study, adds, “The brain is a weak organ. Extreme stress levels, related to higher cortisol levels, may have a long-lasting damaging impact.”

An association between dementia and stress has been well-known. The Alzheimer’s Society declares that stress disturbs the immune system, which plays a role in the development of dementia. Moreover, stress has also been tied to depression and anxiety. These factors are thought to be responsible for the elevated risk of dementia.

Higher cortisol linked to poorer memory

Seshadri and her team tailed more than 2,000 dementia-free participants; more than one-half were women. All these participants were selected from the Framingham Heart Study.

For these investigates, participants received one baseline set of exams (between 2002 and 2005) and one MRI did on an average of 7.7 years after the first examination.

Researchers evaluated these people with tests including abstract reasoning, visual perception, memory, attention, and executive function. They evaluated the gray and white matter of participants with brain MRIs.

Researchers also took an early-day measure of cortisol in the blood serum, that is normally high in the morning.
Seshadri and her team considered the sex, age, body mass index, and smoking history.

They found that those who had cortisol levels in the highest third did not do as well on average when it came to visual perception and memory than those with middle-range cortisol levels. These intellectual trials involved copying shapes and repeating back some simple stories.

Cortisol level may affect brain size and brain function

Those with elevated cortisol levels also had lower volumes of the brain. Scientists detected decreases in the frontal gray matter and the occipital lobe, that is the visual processing center. Furthermore, they also detected structural changes in the integrity of white matter tied to high blood cortisol concentration.

“White matter integrity is strongly associated with processing speed, which in turn is associated with higher overall mental ability,” wrote the authors. “Hence, disruption of information transference by white matter damage could partly explain the damages to mental ability linked to higher cortisol concentrations observed in our research.”

Seshadri records that the link to brain volume was much stronger in women and was not large enough to be significant in men. But the effects were similar in the direction in both men and women.

Dr. Forinari doubts that estrogen may play a role in the differences between men and women because estrogen can increase cortisol. “More work is required to explain this observation,” Forinari says.

The adrenal glands, present on top of the kidneys, produce cortisol. Primarily cortisol is produced in response to stress. The Mayo Clinic describes that cortisol raises sugars in the bloodstream. It increases your brain’s use of the sugars and plays an important role in repairing tissues.

Although the clear-cut causes of higher cortisol levels are not certain. Seshadri proposes that they were possibly elevated due to stress related to daily life, or maybe physical problems like inflammation.

How to stay ahead of your stress

For now, try to protect your brain from stress as best as you can. To do that, it aids to discern what stress looks and feels like. Intellectual signs of stress can include difficulty thinking, concentrating, memory loss, and decision-making.

Stress can appear as physical signs as well. For example, you may experience headaches, digestive problems, fatigue, and joint pain. Know any signs? If so, this may benefit to start working your way through these following tips.

  • Get moving

Even a 10-minute walk can make you feel better prepared to deal with anything which lies ahead. Exercise releases endorphins. This is the hormones which improve our thinking, concentration, and mood.

Some individuals find that regular exercises lessen their anxiety as much as medication. Furthermore, there’s evidence that regular aerobic workout may help maintain brain size and its functioning as you age.

  • Don’t underestimate the power of sleep

Our body heals and redevelops when we take rest.
Also, if you don’t get adequate sleep, your body will actually increase its production of stress hormones. Always try to aim for seven to nine hours of sleep each night.

  • Eat well

Anything which we eat fuels our system. Choose whole grains, fruits, and veggies. These foods contain complex carbs which boost production of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps stabilize your mood.

Don’t forget to get sufficient vitamin C. Though a daily glass of orange juice sounds like a casual suggestion, vitamin C can lower your cortisol.

  • Take care of your health

Stress is sometimes because of not what’s going on around you, but internal stressors, like depression or diabetes. Get a full medical evaluation and always take good care of yourselves.

Mindfulness exercises such as yoga, relaxation, and meditation won’t marvelously make your stress disappear, but they can aid you better cope with it.
Or in any case help, you feel like you can, which, obviously, is half the fight.

  • Reach out to friends

When you meet people and feel supported, your body produces more oxytocin. This “feel good” hormone decreases anxiety and creates a sense of peace. It also has the power to decrease those irritating cortisol levels.

Areeba Hussain

Areeba is an independent medical and healthcare writer. For the last three years, she is writing for Tophealthjournal. Her prime areas of interest are diseases, medicine, treatments, and alternative therapies. Twitter @Areeba94789300

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